Real Friends Don’t Care About Your Smell

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but we had a really kick ass day at Pinatubo.

By the end of the day, we’d trekked for a total of seven hours in humid weather, charged recklessly through muddy terrain on monstrous 4 x 4s, swum in a mineral-filled volcano crater and then proceeded to sun ourselves (and our clothes) dry on the trek to our bus back to Manila.

Added to the 24 hours or so since we had a shower, at some point during the day, even I had to concede that we did not exactly smell like a bed of roses.

You see, one of the biggest arguments Jo and I often have revolves around the issue of smell. Jo, after decades of intense training at being a female, is able to whiff out a day-old sock from two doors down.

I, like many of my counterparts, lack the ability to detect a year-old sock even if we were wearing them. By counterparts, I mean other guys who cannot smell.

I believe that this is a evolutionary development that arised from the millennia-old “Whomever Runneth Outteth of Clean Underwear First Needeth to do the Laundry” war. No prize for guessing who was the winner in this conflict. We promptly proceeded to take away the “eth” from the end of all words. Now you know.

Like I said, somewhere along the way, even I thought that we smelt “funkier than a mosquitoes’ tweeter”.

You can understand why we were at least a little hesitant about meeting up with Nina from Just Wandering upon our return to Manila on this particular day. Nina had been invaluable in providing information when we were planning our trip through the Philippines and one of the things we definitely wanted to do in Manila was to meet up with her.

We were hoping she would like us, and not run in the opposite direction holding her nose.

To be fair, we did warn her that we smelled less than pleasant. She took that in stride and did not even flinch when we met up with her.

We went to Abe’s for some authentic Filipino food. Any misgivings we still had about the taste of Filipino cuisine was thrown out along with any care we had about how the other patrons in the classy restaurant would perceive the two foul smelly, muddy ragmuffins in their midst.

It made Jo NOT care.

The food was that good.

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To top off the night, Nina sent us off with a care package complete with the “Best of” of Filipino snacks. We were touched beyond belief.

It proved to us yet again that travelling is one of the best ways to forge unexpected friendships with random strangers. Friendships that are surprisingly strong. Friendships that transcend borders such as race, language, religion, nationality and smell.

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Sidenote: Do check out Nina’s AWESOME (and multiple-award winning) blog at “Just Wandering”. Also her latest project  PHL360° that showcases the various too gorgeous-for-words travel destinations in Philippines through the eyes of Philippines’ own celebrity bloggers.

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Like a Phoenix

I wrote about the Boracay Phoenix Fire Dancers in the last post, but I don’t think the photos did justice to how awesome these ladies were.

And because nobody asked for it, I’ve decided to upload some of the videos that we took during their performances. I swear… some of the moves these girls pulled would not have looked out of place in a Street Fighter game or a Dragonball manga.

Is it wrong that I think they looked damn sexy when they are doing it as well?

I think they are exceptionally spectacular when they are dancing in a big group. And I think 0:30 showed just how damn skillful they are.

My favourite performance, however, was this rather subdued one to the tune of Beyonce’s “Listen”. The cigarette lighting trick at 2:00 must be one of the most awesome party trick ever!

Crossroads

After our very positive experience with Mama Naxi in Lijiang, we decided to stay in one of her franchises, Mama Naxi #2 while we were in Dali. Mama Naxi #2 has a totally different feel from #1, because, let’s face it, there can only be one Mama Naxi.

#2 was franchised by Mama Naxi’s “disciple”, Joker (seriously!) and is located in a very small alley off Renmin Lu in Dali Old Town. We walked through most of Dali Old Town looking for the hostel and was only able to find it when a raving mad Golden Retriever barrelled into us on Renmin Lu (more on this later).

Like the Mama Naxi we stayed in while we were in Lijiang, Mama Naxi #2 is probably not the most amenities-filled hostel you’d expect to find in Dali. Furthermore, Joker was outta town for most of the time we were there.

But this is where the magic happens.

In Joker’s absence, the hostel was run by his cousin Ah Ze and (I shit you not) some of the long term guests staying at the hostel.

We’ve noticed that just like a lot of other parts of Yunnan (Lijiang and Shuang Lang), Dali attracts a lot of tourists who like the place so much that they set up their homes and businesses there and just never left. In addition to that, another demographic of travellers seemed drawn to Dali (and specifically Mama Naxi #2) –  those that are at a crossroad in their life.

I can totally see why that is so.

With majestic Cang Shan looming over the town on one side and sitting at the edge of the beautiful Er Hai on the other, you’ll never be short of a place to sit and clear your mind and think in Dali. Dali Old Town is also “compact”. It’s composed of two main streets running North-South and East West. It’s not as “touristy” as Lijiang but developed enough that it is not as boring as Shuang Lang (notice the lack of inverted commas).

There’s just enough room to breathe and think the next step through… and be comfortably un-bored at the same time.

Amongst others in Mama Naxi #2, we met:

1) Lao Lu (老吕), a businessman whose business suffered a big setback. He spent the last three months in Dali debating whether he should just call it quits and embark on another venture (often with the very mind-clearing help of a couple (dozen) bottles of beer).

2) LuLu (陆陆), a girl who was enroute from Sze Chuan to England via Dali for further studies. The plan was for her to stopover in Dali while waiting for her connecting flight to Beijing then London. She never got on that flight and had already been soul-searching in Mama Naxi #2 for seven months when we visited.

3) Ella, the mad Golden Retriever that attacks and slobbers on anything with wild abandonment and crazy joy. Ella was left at Mama Naxi after her French owner decided not to bring her along after he left the country. Ella is now under the care of 17 (十七), another one of the helpers at Mama Naxi #2.

Lao Lu and LuLu are paying customers at Mama Naxi #2, but they take it upon themselves to make sure that all new guests are entertained and feel as welcomed as they must’ve felt when they first stepped into the hostel.

Before I met them, I would’ve thought that these people are, for lack of a better word, cowards. They are afraid to take the next step forward and commit to a course of action that would demand all their time and attention for the next few years or so, and hence take the easy way out by escaping it altogether.

Jo, on the other hand, thinks that it takes tremendous courage to say “No” to a set course of action. Especially a course of action that they and/or the people closest to them had already invested considerable amounts of time, money and effort into.

I’m not sure which one of us is closer to the truth, but it definitely got me thinking. I guess (Yoda speech coming through….) sometimes, not making a decision for a while is making a decision.

Or maybe the dog has it right all along.

Who cares what happened before or what’s going to happen next. I’ll be happy for now, thank you very much, as long as there’s a meatbag for me to love and leave my slobber on.

An Ideal Life

If you were walking through the street of Shuang Lang (notice the singularity for “street”) (note: this will not be the last reference in this post about how boring Shuang Lang is), you’d definitely notice a small cafe with signs that loudly proclaim the “authentic French cuisine” it serves.

Even after being burnt numerous times by false Chinese advertising, we were still intrigued. And since there wasn’t much of anything else to do in Shuang Lang, we went in.

The first thing we noticed as we entered the cafe was a Caucasian hunched over his big ass computer playing Skyrim. Ok, it was the first thing I noticed, the first thing Jo noticed was that they served “European Coffee” and the cream puffs they have on display.

Talk about priorities.

There was another couple playing reversi in the cafe when we went in. Boredom is apparently a great unifier because we got to talking. We found out that Peter was from Hong Kong but made his living doing fashion design in Milan and then New York. He and his wife are in the midst of setting up a Bed and Breakfast for their retirement in Shuang Lang because “it’s such a peaceful village” (I had to bite my tongue).

Through Peter, we found out that Max (the gaming caucasian) is a classically trained french chef who retired to Shuang Lang too. The stuff he cooks is apparently “Michelin quality”.

I had a weird moment when it seemed like I’d walked onto the set of Kungfu Hustle where an innocuous neighbourhood is filled with kungfu experts.

After a while, Max actually paused his game to cook Peter his pasta and came over to chat with us for a while (it’s either that, or he might’ve been creeped out by my heavy and excited breathing on his neck as he gamed).

Max had sold off all his possessions in France and moved to Shuang Lang where he was able to buy over a “relatively affordable” shop lot/house. Since making rent is not an issue anymore, he can spend his days gaming and only get out of his gaming chair when there are customers. Then he can indulge in his other love – cooking. It sounded like an ideal life.

It was slightly pricey, but we could not resist the temptation. We bought the most expensive meal we had in a while – crepes with designer coffee (for her) and ice cold beer (for me).

It was good…

Jo with Awesome Crepe. Check out the intricately carved apple at the side of the Crepe

That’s the only picture we have of the food and the place. We were too busy demolishing the food to take photos, or, say… note the name of the restaurant…

Note: Jo is pretty sure the name of the cafe has a very French-sounding name like… “Amigo”.

I think her brains might’ve turned to mush by the boredom.

Scammed…. Again

After my last post about how we were scammed in Xi’an, I received a lot of kind and sympathetic messages from friends, politely (but firmly) questioning my ability to wipe my backside without Jo’s help. So it is with just that little bit of gleeful (and slightly masochistic) pleasure that I am writing this post.

First off, I’d like to say that we really enjoyed Xiao Li’s company during our two days inside the SenLin Gongyuan. However… the series of events leading up to how we met her were not entirely very pleasant, and we probably paid a lot more than we had to for the pleasure of having her with us. (Yes, we have to PAY to get a guide to walk us through a formation of rocks. Yes, I know that sounds stupid. Yes, I know the previous statement sounded a  bit like we hired a hooker. No, she is not a hooker).

To be fair, the times we DID NOT get scammed far outweighed the times that we did (We are in China. There is a chance to scammed around every corner) It’s just that the times when we do fail, we go down spectacularly… like a Singaporean MRT.

Take for example, our train ride to Zhangjiajie. We took an overnight train, and at 6 in the morning, I was approached by a man in a train conductor outfit, asking if I needed a guide at Zhangjiajie. I stood in awe at the brilliance of this grift. An authoritative figure (train conductor outfit) hits you at your most vulnerable (6am in the morning). These people have turned the scam act into an artform.

Knowing this, and yet unable to go against my programming of showing deference to authority, I actually went “oh, ok… that sounds… nice”.

I know… they probably have a poster of me in Scam Central with the tagline “DO NOT LET THIS MAN PASS! HE LISTENS TO ANYTHING IF IT IS SHOUTED TO HIM LOUDLY ENOUGH”

Anyway, the good news was that the travel agency (which the conductor was undoubtedly taking a huge commission from) was not open by the time we pulled into the station. We made the excuse that we really did not want to waste any more time waiting for the agency to open and we scurried off…

…into the open arms of a lady standing alongside a waiting minivan.She told us that she owned an inn just outside the SenLin GongYuan and had just dropped off some of her customers at the train station. They were hoping to recoup some of the fuel cost by picking up customers going back in that direction. All they asked for was a measly 7RMB – the same price we would have paid if we had taken a public bus.

(Before the snarky comments start, I would just like to say for the record that my involvement in the day’s shenanigans ended with the “train conductor”)

ONE of us decided that it was a good deal and we hopped onto the minivan. Fully alerted to the scammy index in the air, we keenly observed where the minivan was going, to make sure we really were headed to the SenLin Gongyuan. When we saw signs pointing us in the direction of SenLin Gongyuan, we relaxed… I think we even secretly congratulated ourselves for scoring a good deal.

And then the minivan dropped us in front of another travel agency.

We were promptly given an intense sales pitch on how it was ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to hire a guide to go into the SenLin GongYuan because it was entirely possible to get lost and abducted by (I shit you not) Aboriginals living within the jungle who had never interacted with another other human in their lives.

Furthermore, the BOSS of the travel agency came out to personally serve us. He was willing to give us a very special price if we took on the tour with them. Even though the boss had known us at this point for less than three minutes, he had taken a powerful liking to us, so much so that he was willing to give us a price so crazily low that he would probably lose money on the deal and be forced to sell his company to become a homeless person who can only survive by selling his bodily organs. THAT is how much he liked us.

We were in the travel agency for more than half an hour, so I’m sure there was a lot more to the sales pitch, but I did not get to hear the rest of it… I had a nature emergency I needed to attend to.

What I know was that once I got out from the toilet, Jo was convinced that we NEEDED to go on the tour.

I suspect voodoo.

She was giving me one of those “I will gorge out your eyes if you do not listen to me” looks.

So was the tour worth it?

Well… for one thing, the SenLin GongYuan is a NATIONAL PARK, so the paths were pretty well marked out. And if you do wander down a stray trail, you can always get back onto a main road by using the ancient tracking method of following the sounds from the megaphones of the tour guides for the 10000001 tour groups that visit the park every day.

The price included all admission tickets and unlimited rides on the “environmentally friendly” buses, within the park, but none of the tickets for the cable cars or monorails.

Admission Tickets we needed: 1 (248 RMB)
Monorail/cable cars we needed: 6 (at 100RMB a pop)
Normal cost of a ride on an “environmentally friendly” buses within the park: 0 RMB

Yes... we succumbed and took some cable cars... between a 10 minute cable car ride and a 1.5 hours track through the "jungles", you can be sure most of the time, my first choice would be cable car

Accommodations was included in the fee, but not the food.

We did get a night’s accommodation with a farmer inside the SenLin Gongyuan. Before we checked in for the night, Xiao Li warned us that this particular farmer was known to chase out guests who didn’t eat dinner with him and his family. And yet we skipped dinner because we were stingy little bastards the “farmer” wanted to drive home the point of how much we were scammed. (88RMB EACH for one meat, one vege and one soup) (if you need a point of reference, we could normally get a HUGE ASS bowl of noodles filled to the brim with meat and vege for 8RMB)

We spent the night living in fear of being thrown out to the wilds.

And the worst part?

We did not even get to see any Aboriginals…

On the plus side, we spent two days in the charming company of Xiao Li, one of the feistiest girls we've ever met... She bounces ahead of us on the uphill trails, TRYING to make us sing Miao folk songs with her and she would very LOUDLY scold other passengers who try to take our seats in the buses

Xiao Li also doubled as our photographer during our time in the park. Only problem is... she delights in taking shots of us when we are at our most idiotic...